The young yachtie who followed her star

Review: Vivien Horler

Thinking Up a Hurricane, by Martinique Stilwell (Karavan Press)

We all have an idea of what it takes to get into medical school in South Africa. Years of unrelenting school study, utter determination and brilliant results.

Martinique Stilwell probably developed her determination on the way, but the rest of her gypsy journey was utterly different, and not through choice.

In 1977, when Nicky was seven, her father decided to buy a yacht and sail around the world. He was a Benoni electrician whose experience at sea was minimal, but he didn’t allow his lack expertise to stop him. He was also something of a tyrant, and his family – and the poodle Pepe – had little option but to go along with him.

It was to be a two-year voyage, but it consumed Nicky and her twin brother Robert’s childhoods. They didn’t have much schooling, although Nicky’s mother did what she could.

By the time the family reached Durban, where their refurbished 17-ton steel yacht Vingila awaited them, the twins were nine. One of the first fellow yachties they met was the bearded captain of a Swiss-registered Bangkok junk. With him were his two sons in their early teens.

Frank Stilwell asked him: “Excuse me, do your children go to school?”

The skipper replied: “See this boy? I’ll tell you now that he is 13 years old and he can sail and navigate. So you tell me, why does he need to go to school?”

That was what Frank wanted to hear.

Many years later that 13-year-old, Hans Klaar, applied to study marine biology at the University of Hawaii, but was rejected – being able to navigate a yacht was not a sufficient qualification for college.

“… He would be relegated to a life of yacht deliveries, vanilla trading, orchid smuggline and intermittent stints working as a postman in his native Switzerland.”

Although she wasn’t aware of all this at the age of nine, Nicky determined early that she was going to study and have a future which did not revolve around yachts.

The first leg of their round-the world voyage was from Durban to Cape Town. Frank had not yet mastered celestial navigation, and this was before the age of GPS. The weather was atrocious and most of the time they had no idea where they were.

If they stayed close to the coast they would have a rough idea of position, but the closer to the coast, the more dangerous it was. It was enough to put off lesser souls, but not Frank.

From Table Bay they sailed to St Helena, Ascension, Salvador, into the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal to the Galapagos, the Cook Islands and eventually to Brisbane in Australia, where Frank got a job to boost finances. They tied up for a year at the botanical gardens. Pepe was not allowed to go ashore at all, on pain of being destroyed.

Much about the voyage was idyllic, with diving and snorkelling in azure seas, anchoring in beautiful coves, catching fish, meeting other yachties and making friends. Nicky started a collection of shells, many of which were seriously valuable.

But there was a great deal of recklessness, mainly on Frank’s part, fear, and hardship. Periods in the doldrums meant long days of frustration, with diminishing supplies. Often lunch was simply a watermelon.

The Stilwell family were not well off, and occasionally supplemented their income by selling smuggled whisky.

At an anchorage on one island a tsunami was predicted, and Nicky and Pepe joined other yachties up on the safety of a hill. Frank refused to leave his beloved boat, and Mom and Robert stayed with him. The tsunami didn’t materialise, and Frank did not let 12-year-old Nicky forget her lapse of courage – or surge of common sense.

On another occasion in Tahiti she left the yacht when a hurricane was predicted, once again earning her father’s contempt.

At one stage, when a hurricane threatened and she was frightened, he accused her of endangering them all, and the yacht, by “thinking” disaster up.

When she was 16, Nicky had had enough. She persuaded her mother to buy her a ticket home from Australia, and went to live with her grandmother in Alberton, where she enrolled at the local high school.

The transition was not easy. At school in Brisbane she had been seen as cool, but in Alberton she was anything but. Afrikaans was also a problem, as she hadn’t studied the language since her earliest school years, and in those days if you failed Afrikaans you failed matric, regardless of how well you had done in other subjects.

There was also the issue of living with her grandmother and her partner. They were elderly and set in their ways, and while loving and supportive, were not that receptive to having a teenager in the house.

But Nicky was single-minded, and with no friends to distract her – the uncoolness factor – worked hard. Her father might have been a mini-dictator, but it looked as though some of his single-mindedness had rubbed off on her.

The week after Nicky’s matric prize-giving and the arrival of news she had a provisional place in medical school, Vingila made landfall at Richards Bay, eight years after the family had left Durban.

According to the epilogue, today Nicky is a GP in Cape Town, married to another doctor, with two daughters who sail dinghies on Zeekoevlei.

Nicky says as an adult she is more able to appreciate “the strength of character and courage that my father displayed in taking his family sailing around the world”, adding she is grateful for many of the adventures of childhood. Faint praise?

Mom now has a house and a garden, and says she is never going sailing again.

Robert, who never took to schooling, is a diver, working on oil rigs. “Like me,” she writes, “he speaks of having a yacht of his own one day.”

So maybe there will be a sequel to this inspiring and enormously readable book. I’ll buy it.

  • Although originally published by Penguin Books in 2012, Thinking up a Hurricane was republished last year by Karavan Press.





One thought on “The young yachtie who followed her star

  1. David Bristow

    Must be a new edition – I read it some time ago and was interested to learn she lived down the road from where I built a home at Zeekoevlei/


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